Illana Margulis from Levity Farms in Atlanta, Ga., uses her phone’s digital assistant tool to remind her to turn off the farm’s irrigation. Technology can be a useful tool in preventing accidental irrigation pooling.

In June, Michelle Danyluk, a professor of food microbiology and safety at the University of Florida, hosted a food safety roundtable discussion titled “After a Flood” at the United Fresh Produce Association’s 2018 conference.  Danyluk started with a simple and important question – “What type of flood do you have?” Understanding the differences between excessive pooling of water from an irrigation line or heavy downpour versus flooding from surface water runoff makes a big difference when evaluating flood risk.

The first step is sorting out where the water came from. If it’s from a broken irrigation line, or one left on too long (I’m guilty of this one), under normal circumstances your crop should still be safe to harvest – although the quality of crop may be damaged.  Farmers should complete a risk assessment to determine if it is safe to continue to work and harvest that field. An example of a risk assessment may include scouting the fields for manure that may have washed over the rows.

Another event that can create a lot of problems, but not necessarily a food safety risk, is rainwater pooling.  If it’s just rainwater, conduct a risk assessment to determine if the produce is safe to harvest, sell, and/or consume. If there is any doubt about the safety of the produce, be sure to dispose of it.

Floods caused by surface water, such as ponds, streams, or lakes, are a different story.  According to the Produce Safety Alliance (PSA), “if the edible portion of the crop has been exposed to flood waters, it is considered adulterated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and should not enter human food channels.” Which means, the product is not safe to sell or consume. The only thing to do, after checking in with your crop insurance, FSA, and Extension agent, is to destroy the produce.

A surface water flood means that anything could have washed in and out of that water source and into the field, be it high levels of E. coli., dead animals, or petroleum and other noxious chemicals.

For more information, including what to do if “the crop comes in proximity to or is exposed to a lesser degree” to surface water, we’d recommend reading the PSA’s “Food Safety for Flooded Farms” PDF.

No farmer wants to destroy a crop they’ve put so much effort into, so it is extremely important to know how to safely handle issues with flooding.  Floods can be tricky, thankfully there are people like Michelle Danyluk and the Produce Safety Alliance helping us navigate these muddy waters.